I must confess: I am NOT a comic book geek. Back in the 80's, when naught but convenient stores were open for late night prowling, Steve and I did indulge in buying the occasional comic book out of boredom and curiosity. This led to an occasional comic store visit, where our best haul was a Spider-Man Meets David Letterman issue. So if you are looking for comic book canon and expertise, you’ll not find it here. At best, I was a dilettante at even being a comic dilettante.
Evidently, superheroes and comics have had a resurgence and success in pop culture in the last decade that I have largely ignored. I checked IMDb and 2008’s Iron Man was my last participation in this phenomenon.
So how did I end up riveted by Marvel’s Legion showing now on FX? How do I love thee, Legion? Let us count the ways.
1. Spectacular art direction.
The time in which the series is set is intentionally undefined and fluid. Season 3 introduces the notion of time travel (some temporal time shifts always took place, but this is full-on time manipulation) so the design has taken a much heavier specificity. There has always been a heavy presence of 60's and 70's color themes and designs. Sets are sometimes set in imaginary and imagined spaces, institutional, and secret governmental spaces. They all are other-worldly and strange. And we get to travel to the astral plane from time-to-time. It is all meticulous and detailed.
Costumes too can be time-defying, time specifying, or fantastic and elaborate. Each outfit worn by a character is integral to the scene and serves the story.
2. Music cues.
The soundtrack weaves classics, contemporary, and bespoke recordings into the story in an organic and absolutely perfect way. Showrunner Noah Hawley even recorded some atmospheric covers for inclusion on the soundtrack. The Who play an important story-telling role in Legion, with ‘Happy Jack’ and ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ being used effectively to propel the plot. And the lead ingenue is called Syd Barrett! There are plenty of musical Easter Eggs to keep music lovers on their toes.
3. Song and dance integrated.
The cast includes Bill Irwin, a well-established dancer-mime-clown, Dan Stevens, who is enough of a musical heavyweight to have been cast as the Beast in the live action remake of Beauty and, well, him, and Jemaine Clement, who is not only an actor of notable range but also half of New Zealand’s fourth most popular comedy-folk duo, Flight of the Conchords. Showrunner Noah Hawley uses these performers' skills to serve and stretch the already ethereal world of Legion a world where when characters can no longer speak their thoughts, they may find themselves singing or dancing them.
While themes of love, betrayal, mental illness, the nature of reality, Armageddon, the threat of conformity, looming terror, the meaning of memory, and the inescapability of fate are deeply woven threads in the fabric of the story, the cast includes several skilled comedic actors: Bill Irwin, a literal clown; Jean Smart, best known as a sitcom star; Jemaine Clement, who rose to prominence as a comedian; Hamish Linklater, from The New Adventures of Old Christine sitcom; and Parks & Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza.
Plaza is jaw-droppingly good. Menacing, vulnerable, physically embodying multiple characters, serving the complicated story as needed. She can be demonic, alluring, repellant, and comical all at once. She is so much more than the deadpan April Ludgate.
5. Dan Freaking Stevens.
He is not the cuddly floppy-haired Downton Abbey heart-throb here. He sings, dances, and relays a range of emotion from lovesick puppy to the embodiment of pure existential threat. All with an American accent. In one particularly wonderful scene on the astral plane, he argues with a smarter version of himself, who speaks in his perfect British posh accent, of course. Why he and Plaza have not collected all the awards, I don’t know. I suspect The Shadow King may be at work.
6. Constant Disruption of Expectations.
The show does not go where you think it will. In this last season, I have given up on trying to predict what is next. I still care about the characters and want to see where showrunner Hawley takes us, but this is not an unconventional love story, a superhero squad origin story, or a sci-fi gee-whiz adventure. Legion is all and none of those things. It is more interesting than any of those things alone.
7. Every Freaking Body on the show.
Rachel Keller, Syd Barrett, has a complicated life story and “power” (hey, this is a Marvel comix co-production, remember) and she has proven herself up to the bad-assery the character has unleashed. I hope that this abused character’s arc, for good or ill, provides some agency for her. However, this season she’s hanging with the show’s Big Bad, the suave Navid Negahban as the personification of pure evil or the real savior of mankind. His multi-lingual, languid operator is seducing her to his will, so seemingly goodbye agency, Syd. But again, see point 6.
The physical warrior of The Gang is played by Amber Midthunder, She is the other half of Bill Irwin’s character. I don’t want to give away more, but their relationship is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Jeremie Harris has had the fate of becoming a literal mainframe, so his character has already found the logical extension of his power over memory.
David’s possible deus ex machina has turned up in this last season as the character Switch (Lauren Tsai). It is early days so my personal jury is out on how the character will serve the denouement of the story.
Notably, the cast is more diverse than we typically see. Asian, Arab, Indigenous (both American and Maori), African American, and Latin actors are featured, stretching representation well beyond the pretty blonde and blue-eyed leads.
In short, the show is complex, visually stunning, unlike anything else, and well-stocked with a virtuoso cast at the height of their powers. There are 27 episodes total, wrapping in August 2019, so a couple of weekend binges and you can catch up for the finale.
Legion is not for everyone. It is for more folks than have discovered it so far, perhaps you, dear reader. I suspect its reputation will grow in the next few years as folks discover this exceptional show. If you are not transfixed by the end of Episode 1, maybe you are not right for Legion. Smart, funny, surprising, stylish, contemplative, wistful, masterly, and lyrical with a solid pop culture referential pedigree: Legion and I are registered at Nordstrom, Belk, and Target.